At a Glance
Homer: Who is he? To this day, there is continuing debate over whether or not the ancient poet actually existed. And if he did, there are serious doubts about his authorship. Some contend that there is artistic unity within each of his epic poems, yet others believe the works to be the effort of multiple contributors. The style of the poetry has its roots in oral tradition, and some liken Homer’s writings to the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, a poetic work that was edited, expanded, and rewritten by many hands over its lengthy history. Although these issues of authorship can never be resolved conclusively, the man known as Homer—whether fiction, legend, or flesh-and-blood poet—is still revered for his epic and highly influential works, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Facts and Trivia
- Although there are multiple accounts of Homer’s origins and life, scholars have been unable to validate the historical accuracy of any of them.
- Most sources suggest that Homer was part of a tradition of blind epic poets.
- Homer’s reputation in the classical period reached its apex when a religious following of the poet emerged. These followers believed Homer to have been divinely inspired in his writing.
- For many centuries, Homer’s work remained somewhat obscure. It was only during the neoclassical movement of the Renaissance that his writing regained prominence.
- The Trojan War, which provides the basis for the Iliad, may not have happened. While it is probably based on an actual war, many believe Homer’s account of it to be a fictionalization.
- The Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou, is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in 1930s America.
Very little is known about the author of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) and the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616). The ancient Greeks attributed both to Homer, a bard who probably lived late in the ninth century b.c.e. Both long-standing tradition and linguistic analysis of the two epics indicate that their author was a native of Ionia in western Asia Minor. A number of cities claimed to be Homer’s birthplace, but he was probably a native either of the coastal city Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey, or of nearby Chios, an island in the eastern Aegean Sea. Homer was said to be blind, like the bard Demodocus in the Odyssey, and to have earned a meager living by performing at one court after another. Supposedly he died and was buried on the Aegean island Ios.
Those scholars who believe that Homer was responsible for shaping the two great epics admit that he must have begun either with incomplete narratives that had been handed down in the oral tradition or with a number of songs, some of which could have dated back almost as far as the central historical event in both poems, the fall of Troy in 1250 b.c.e. However, Homer was no mere editor; he provided the unifying vision that is essential to the creation of great art. Moreover, even though excerpts from the epics were recited long after his time, the fact that the text changed very little indicates that Homer had his poems preserved in written form, perhaps by dictating them to a scribe.
Various theories have been advanced to explain the fact that the two works are very dissimilar in tone and outlook. One was that the Iliad was written in Homer’s youth and the Odyssey, in his later years; another, that the two poems had two different authors. Nineteenth century scholars debating the “Homeric question” concluded that each epic was produced by a group of writers. At the end of the twentieth century, that idea still had many adherents, but there was new evidence that the two epics were the work of one genius, thus demonstrating once again that tradition is often quite reliable.
Homer established the epic as a genre in Western literature and set the standards by which later works would be judged. Moreover, the values reflected in the Iliad and the Odyssey not only shaped Greek culture but also...
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